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Why we love artists but not arts education

By Lisa Phillips

There seems to be a major disconnect between how creativity is valued in society and the career advice we give our children. We all know that the arts are a valuable means of expression, a means to share stories across cultures and an uplifting and moving source of entertainment.

We revere our cultural icons, whether they are movie stars, literary authors or artists, but we seem to limit the possibility of careers in the arts to only a talented few.

How many of us arts professionals have heard from family and friends, “When are you going to get a real job?”

So, why do we put our cultural icons on a pedestal but undervalue arts education? I think one of the reasons is that as a society we are preoccupied with the idea that the arts are reserved only for those with talent. However, in the reality of today’s job market, we need to change this idea.

There is a significant gap between what children are told is important for their future career success and what business leaders actually want from the emerging workforce. Creative individuals are actually in demand. Not just for arts careers, but for careers in business as well.

For example, Disney and Apple are two of the most successful companies of our time, largely because of the creativity, innovation, and the leadership they have demonstrated in their respective industries.

In an era when businesses are constantly struggling to find creative ways to stay at the top of their market, arts education can be a powerful tool to nurture the creative abilities of our young people, ensuring they are ready for the skills that are in demand.

I have had the pleasure of learning from some of the top business and marketing experts in the world, including Jay Abraham, Eric Trump, Steve Wozniak (Co-Founder of Apple), Stedman Graham (expert in identity development and branding), and Michael Eisner (former CEO of Disney) to name a few. One of the consistent messages I hear from all of these successful business leaders is the importance of creativity in business.

Top CEO’s around the world are seeking out new employees who can think creatively, be innovative in business development and marketing strategies and show outstanding leadership qualities that will “wow” clients. This is what businesses need to compete in the global marketplace. In a 2010 study by IBM, interviews with CEO’s representing 33 industries and 60 countries identified creativity as the most important leadership skill for the future.

The problem is, our children are not spending their formative years honing this crucial skill. They are spending thousands of hours practicing math, science, history and other core subjects in the hopes of getting into excellent universities and gaining a highly coveted degree. A degree is important, but what about when it’s time to get a job?

Let’s face it, in today’s marketplace a university degree is a bare minimum, much like a high school diploma was decades ago. Everyone has a degree…so what? What matters most is what is going to set young people apart from their peers. What is their competitive edge?

Remember, the job market is very different now than it was 20 years ago. Competition for jobs is now global and if young people are going to succeed in any career they need to stand out. We are doing our children a disservice by not preparing them for the challenges that lie ahead. The point is that we are all creative and if we nurture that creativity then we can all find the career success we desire.

So, what if our young people spent thousands of hours as they grew up honing their creativity through participating in performing and visual arts programs? What if they studied leadership skills so they knew how to communicate effectively, find solutions to challenges and build relationships that would help them achieve success? They would be prepared for whatever life threw at them, whether it was a career in the arts or business or something else.

If CEOs of some of the largest companies in the world are craving talent who can think creatively, find solutions to challenging problems, build relational capital with clients and partners, communicate effectively, and adapt to constantly changing global market why aren’t we teaching our children how to do that?

I firmly believe that arts education not only teaches creativity, but also, when the facilitators are intentional, it has the capacity to teach countless other important leadership skills. So, let’s squash the myth of the talented few and embrace the idea that arts education should be for anyone who wants to soar to the top of the interview pile and meet the growing demand for creativity in the marketplace.

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